Raspberry Pi: Electronics Weekly mini review

Electronics Weekly was invited to the headquarters of Element 14 to try a real Raspberry Pi – Element 14 and RS Components are the companies that will sell the board and are going to take over responsibility for making them.So what is it like?Engaging…..is probably the best description.

Just as the Raspberry Pi Foundation intended it to be.

This one had Debian Squeeze on its SD Card.The current alternatives are Arch Linux and a Fedora Remix, and there is already a media player available for the board's rather powerful graphics engine - see further down.The aim of the Raspberry Pi Foundation - the educational charity behind the little ARM11 computer - is to get kids involved in computer science just like BBC Micro and Sinclair Spectrum did 25 years ago.

The Foundation founders are professionals who have seen a drop in the quality of computer science amongst school leavers since the intellectual wave started by those 1980s machines.

Once powered up (5V, microUSB), the little computer was up and running after about a minute's booting.

Just as the Raspberry Pi Foundation promised, the first thing the user sees after the password request is a command line prompt, so they have to interact with the board as a computer to get any further.

"Any Linux command line person can get it up and running straight away," said Element 14 Raspberry Pi specialist Mike Powell, who was putting it though its paces.

Things fork here, he demonstrated.

Typing 'startx' fires up the GUI - LXDE in this case - and within seconds you have a working computer on which anyone who uses Windows or Ubuntu will be able to browse the web and do all the usual PC-like or Mac-like activities.

Typing any other Linux command - which are much like DOS commands - takes you into the computer science education world that the Raspberry Pi Foundation designed its little board for.

Powell started Snake from the command line - a simple and infuriatingly addictive ASCII character game that is part of the bait intended to draw teenagers further in.

In this case it is written in Python, the Foundation's chosen educational programming language.

Python is a bit BASIC but more structured - BBC basic was actually quite complex with a lot of extensions.

With an editor, a novice can quickly learn to change the game - its playing speed, colours, and the number of obstacles - by editing the Python programme - editors nano and vi are in the distribution, said Powell.

If the desktop is running and two command line terminal windows are open, the user can edit in one, and see the effect on the game in the other.

So within minutes, with guidance, someone can be editing code and seeing a result.

As Powell pointed out, this could be done on many other computers running Linux but, unlike with a PC, the worst Raspberry Pi screw-up in the world can be cured by re-programming the SD Card - unless the screw-up involved an Internet connection and your credit card details...

On the subject of Internet connections, without having one the boot-up is slowed considerably as the software makes several tries to find the Internet before it gives up and completes the boot.

Sadly, because Element 14's in-office setup had industrial-strength security protection, Powell never did get the Raspberry Pi to play the high-definition video clips he had waiting on a server.

Here is a link to Raspberry Pi playing a video, and rendering some impressive 3D graphics

An interesting piece of software that is already available is XBMC which is a comprehensive media player able to play HD videos through that built-in graphics processor - a Broadcom VideoCore IV.

XBMC, which runs on its own Linux distribution, can stream video or audio content from a networked server or play it from the SD Card, or possibly a hard drive plugged into the board's USB port - we are not sure on this one yet.

End of demonstration.

I thought of grabbing the board and running for the door, but then thought better of it and left without a Raspberry Pi, but with a semblance of dignity.

The Team

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